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The Role of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear

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Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is perhaps one of the most revered plays throughout literary history.  The tragedy of the protagonist, King Lear, is considered by many as having very human folly, being set in a world full of illusions generated by other people and one’s self. Throughout this tragedy of King Lear, an unlikely character is guiding him with the light of truth, his loyal companion the Fool. The Fool is functioning within the story as King Lear’s conscience because Lear seems to be lacking his own conscience.

The fool is also functioning in the story as not only an entertainer, but also King Lear’s adviser and confidant. Interestingly also, the characterization of the Fool is seemingly offset from the other characters. That is because the Fool is ironically the only character in the story that has a grip of the truth and the Fool is the character that is gifted with thoughtful insights and superb wisdom. Moreover, the Fool “juggles” the burden of being witty and insightful to help King Lear from being completely insane, or at least delay it. These characteristics of the Fool have a great effect on King Lear’s trajectory from being his own tragedy towards a much needed redemption.

            The use of the Fool in King Lear is not new to the plays of William Shakespeare. There are also characters that functioned like the fool in his other plays like Feste of “Twelfth Night,” Trinculo of “The Tempest,” Yorick, who is already dead even before the play starts, in Hamlet, and many others. Actually, there is a historical basis for Shakespeare use of the fool in his plays.

During the early times, fools, also known as clowns or jesters, were employed by people of noble stature to join their retinue. In the period of the Renaissance, fools were even required to be licensed before they can be employed into the house of the rich people. Once employed, they were regarded as mascots, at the least, and at worst, reduced to being like animal pets. They would wear colorful outfits, outfits that could only be associated with clowns,  that were probably the basis for the look of contemporary clowns. (Hoenselaars)

There is also a historical basis to the threat of King Lear to the Fool that the Fool will be whipped for criticizing King Lear. Fools during the early times were punished, like being whipped, for offending their masters (Hoenselaars). In the case of King Lear and the Fool, King Lear was offended just because the Fool was speaking the truth about him. King Lear was offended because he had surrounded himself with all these illusions of still being powerful even though his antagonists, including his conniving daughters, had stripped him of his former glory.

Serving punishment to the Fool was not exclusive to King Lear. Her conniving daughters had also whipped the Fool for speaking the truth that offended them. The Fool responds to the whipping with the lines “thou had whipped me for lying. And sometimes for holding my peace” (Act 1 scene 4) That line just shows that the character of The Fool is clearly different with the other characters in the play with regards to his approach and grasp of the truth.

These were all notable characteristics of The Fool in “King Lear.” Before deciding on things, King Lear would ask for advice from the Fool. In the course of the play, King Lear would be asked by Goneril to leave his place. And so King Lear resorted to asking his conniving daughter Regan for a place to stay. The Fool had given King Lear the advice “…she is like this crab is like an apple…yet I can tell what I can tell” (Act 1 scene 4) The Fool is advising King Lear that it was a bad decision as her daughter was plotting against him.

The Fool also played the role of a conscience, just what King Lear needs so badly. The Fool functions much like how a chorus does in a Greek tragedy by always commenting on the every actions, and even plans, of King Lear. He would serve as a sort of representative of conscience, and his kind of language, that is both witty and ironic, makes his criticisms about King Lear very interesting to listen to like how he talk about “truth” in the line “truth’s a dog must to kennel” (Act 1 scene 4) The Fools kind of language helps King Lear a lot by making the harsh truths surrounding King Lear’s life sound less tragic.

King Lear seems to be the kind of person who is solely dependent on interpersonal communication. He only responds to what the people around him, just like in case of his conniving sisters talking him to divide his kingdom among them. This characteristic of King Lear is connected deeply to the Fool’s role of a representative of conscience. The Fool’s presence when he is with King Lear is a symbolism of a detached conscience. The concept of conscience is basically asking one’s self for advice for future actions and criticisms of past actions. As we could observe in the play, the Fool was always around King Lear when the king was only on the brink of total insanity. Towards the climax of the play, the fool suddenly disappears and never reappearing the play again leaving his last line “I’ll go to bed at noon” (Act 3 scene 6)

That line is an exquisite symbolism that Shakespeare had devised to allude to the concept of being detached from one’s conscience. As for the case of King Lear, the lack of influence of one’s own conscience is seemingly pushing him towards insanity. That line also means that the Fool had enough of King Lear’s inevitable fate towards plunging to the depths of insanity. The Fool had reasoned with and had come up with quite a lot of advice for King Lear. It is just understandable that the fool will have enough of King Lear’s thick-headedness. The Fool is after all still human that role plays as conscience.

The Fool knows his job well and he is also aware of the descriptions of what he should do. The Fool’s job description would include always speaking in a witty and a humorous, not to mention insightful language. It must have been tiring to be constantly thinking of entertaining lines while thinking about how it would help his master from being completely insane. After all, the Fool was still relatively young as King Lear always addresses the Fool as “boy.”Here is an example of how the Fool “juggles” the burden of being witty and insightful for King Lear. This funny yet insightful exchange of lines between The Fool and King Lear is probably one of the most quoted lines from the play:

            “Fool: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason

            King Lear: Because they are not eight?

            Fool: Yes, indeed, thou wouldst make a good fool”

(Act 1 scene 4)

            That funny yet insightful exchange between The Fool and King Lear would lead us to the another important role of The Fool. The character of the Fool is full of irony, just like his most important function in the play, the Fool makes King Lear, and also the audience, that King Lear is actually the most foolish out of all the characters within the play. This important function of the Fool is best displayed though the exchange of lines in act four of the play. King Lear had was seemingly offended by one of the Fool’s comic antics. King Lear had asked if the Fool was treating him as a lowly fool. King Lear had asked with the suggestion that he was offended “dost thou call me fool boy?” (Act 1 scene 4)

The Fool had seemingly changed tone, as his reply was not funny anymore, but still it was witty and insightful. The Fool had remarkably replied with the line “all thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with” (Act 1 scene 4) This line would have a big impact in King Lear’s journey towards redemption because this line along with all the witty-but-insightful lines that the Fool had said to King Lear. That is because those lines that the Fool had said will be embedded in King Lear’s subconscious making King Lear more careful about the truth and aware of his follies.

            Another important thing to take into consideration is that the Fool seems to get way most of the time with his subtle ridicules towards King Lear. Again, the character of the Fool highlights the foolishness of King Lear, that King Lear is not being aware of because he still has these illusions that he is highly and therefore he thinks nothing but highly about himself.


William Shakespeare seems to prefer having a fool that has exceptional wit rather than people of noble stature but have foolish characteristics, which is ironically Shakespeare’s favorite material for protagonists of his plays. But of all the ironies, the most notable is Shakespeare’s characterization of the Fool in the play “King Lear.” It is very ironic that out of all the characters within the play, the character of the Fool seems to be the most intelligent and wise.

Another thing that is very admirable thing about the Fool is that he has noble intentions regarding his relationship with his master, King Lear. The Fool had stayed and helped King Lear even in his lowest of times. It has appeared in the play that to help King Lear realize his follies was the Fool’s purpose of existence. But then he had to leave King Lear, because that seems an impossible endeavor. The Fool was just human after all, human that when all hope is lost, also loses their driving force.

But ultimately the Fool’s main significant contribution towards the redemption of King Lear was his constant subtle ridicules about the king. The insights that was underlying within his banters was embedded in King Lear’s subconscious. That had helped by gradually making King Lear realize his own follies. That had helped a lot because somehow King Lear slowly develops his own conscience as the Fool had left and never returned.

Works Cited

Hoenselaars. A. J. Reclamations of Shakespeare. Detroit: Rodopi. 1994

Shakespeare, William. King Lear

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